The powerful earthquake that struck near the Himalayan region of Pakistan and India Saturday morning killed more than 2,000 people and appears to have concentrated most of its fury on remote areas of northern Pakistan, especially the disputed province of Kashmir, officials said.
The earthquake, a powerful 7.6-magnitude temblor, rattled dinnerware and nerves across a wide area of the South Asian subcontinent, sending hordes of panicked residents into streets from Kabul to New Delhi and causing widespread if haphazard destruction whose extent was far from clear Saturday night.
Here in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad, about 60 miles south of the epicenter, the quake caused the collapse of a 10-story luxury high-rise but left the rest of the city relatively unscathed, although residents described utility poles that danced and swayed and water sloshing bizarrely over the sides of hotel swimming pools.
At the collapsed building tonight, rescuers wielding jackhammers and sledgehammers worked frantically beneath the glare of floodlights to free scores of people believed still trapped in layers of twisted steel and concrete, one part of which was streaked with blood. They paused every few minutes to listen for voices.
Pakistani authorities said the worst damage occurred in the northern part of the country, much of it in Kashmir, although assessing the situation was difficult because communication links had been severed. There were reports tonight of entire villages wiped away and landslides blocking major roads and rivers. The army was rushing troops and heavy equipment to the area to help with rescue operations.
"The damage and the casualties could be massive and it is a national tragedy," Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan, the chief army spokesman, told reporters. "This is the worst earthquake in recent times."
Across the border in the part of Kashmir controlled by India, authorities said the quake had destroyed or damaged hundreds of homes, mostly simple dwellings of mud and stone. It also triggered a landslide that blocked the highway linking the lakeside summer capital of Srinagar to the rest of India to the south. At least 213 people died in the Indian part of the province, authorities said. More than half the deaths occurred in the town of Uri, near the cease-fire line that separates Indian and Pakistani forces in the province.
The earthquake struck at 8:50 a.m. Pakistan time (11:50 p.m. Friday EDT) at a depth of six miles in the forested mountains of Kashmir near the Indian border about 60 miles north of Islamabad, according to the Web site of the United States Geological Survey. The earthquake, which the survey described as "major," was followed by a number of smaller aftershocks that were felt as far away as the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka, Reuters reported.
The death toll may have been compounded by the calendar. This week marked the beginning of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of prayer and fasting. As a result, many Pakistanis were asleep when the earthquake struck, having risen before dawn to pray and have a light meal in preparation for the daylong fast, then gone back to bed.
"It was really scary," said Najam Uddin, 30, a hotel clerk who lives in the nearby city of Rawalpindi. He had just woken up and was still lying in bed when he noticed that the house he shares with his parents was "shivering just like this," he said, waving his arms back and forth like sea grass in a current. His bed shook violently as books spilled from shelves and dinner plates shattered on the kitchen floor, he recalled.
The family ran outside, joining neighbors in the street. "Even ladies who don't come outside came outside," he said, referring to conservative Muslim women who maintain the tradition of purdah. Uddin said the shaking lasted five minutes.
The situation was far worse to the north, closer to the epicenter of the earthquake. The collapse of a school in the northwestern district of Mansehra killed 250 girls and injured 500 more, according to a police official quoted by the Associated Press. Mohammed Anwar, the top government official in Pakistani Kashmir, said that at least 1,000 people had died there.
"That is my conservative guess, and the death toll could be much higher," he told Pakistan's Aaj television network. The army reported the death of 200 soldiers at a garrison near Muzzafarabad, the capital of Pakistani Kashmir, which also suffered heavy damage. A military hospital in the garrison town of Rawlakot, also in Pakistani Kashmir, was reported destroyed.
Interior Minister Khan Sherpao told ARY television that he had received reports that some villages had been completely destroyed.